It's been a few weeks since Obama tapped former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to head the USDA. The immediate consensus sounded to me like "it could've been worse" from just about everyone I spoke to, but now there are a number of different opinions online so I think it is useful to take a look at several of them together.
Three posts on Huffington Post range from pessimistic, to hopeful, to absolutely joyous:
1. The Center for Food Safety's Andrew Kimbrell: Obama's Choice of Vilsack: AgriBusiness as Usual at USDA?
2. Eating Liberally's Kerry Trueman: Maybe Vilsack Won't Suck?
3. Vilsack's friend, Jennifer Donahue: Vilsack Best Possible Secretary of Agriculture
Good to know that Vilsack's own friends (or at least one of them) think he's the perfect man for the job. I didn't even have to read Kimbrell's title to know what he thinks of Vilsack - his organization is a MAJOR thorn in the side of biotech companies and Vilsack is a known buddy of Monsanto. (Strangely, ABC News uses the same pun as Kimbrell, calling Vilsack "Agribusiness As Usual.") Kerry kind of comes down the middle, saying honestly that she doesn't know what to make of the Vilsack appointment (after acknowledging a number of problems with him as USDA head). She went to Denise O'Brien for advice, as did I. O'Brien sounds hopeful, but let's also remember that an optimistic attitude is probably a political necessity for her right now. With luck, O'Brien will soon receive an Obama appointment herself.
According to an op ed in a Des Moines paper, Vilsack needs courage to face up to Big Ag. However, I'm not sure if the problem is one of "courage." It might be more like "motive." After all - Kimbrell points out that Vilsack has received federal subsidy money from the USDA and he's worked as a lobbyist on ag and renewable energy issues. Furthermore, he was named "Governor of the Year" by the biotech lobby and he's strongly pro-ethanol. So is there any point in asking the question the Des Moines op ed asks?
Vilsack is one of us "folks" with deep Iowa roots. The question is: Does Vilsack get marching orders from common, concerned citizens or the four horsemen of the Big Ag gravy wagon: Dupont, Monsanto, ADM, Cargill? We are in an era of rapidly diminishing returns from factory farming. New ways of thinking, new ways of farming, novel economic solutions are necessary.
The petrochemical-powered agriculture juggernaut rolls on roughshod to deplete once-fertile soil, poison our waters and churn out unhealthy, nutrient-depleted factory food. Our children are the first generation in history that will have a shorter life span than their elders as a direct result of our wrong choices.
Big Ag has the carbon footprint of a 900-pound gorilla. Vilsack joins Sens. Tom Harkin, Charles Grassley and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey to defend the ag empire. They all answer to the ag-biz lobby. Our children deserve the quality of water and soil that our grandparents stewarded into our present generation. Future generations have no lobby in Washington.
If we continue with Big Ag and business as usual, Iowa family farms have no viable future. Half of our rich, vital top soil has already been extracted and sloughed down the Mississippi River along with a toxic soup of petrochemical runoff. The dead zone now extends into the Gulf 500 miles beyond the river delta. At the present rate of soil depletion, the Midwest Dust Bowl is only one generation away.
Yet another Des Moines Register article notes that Vilsack's Back on the Political Power Climb. Well, great. In that context, is there any question about who Vilsack will be answering to? The only thing that makes me any LESS pessimistic is the New York Times op ed "Fixing Agriculture" that notes that Vilsack "has the merit of being unsatisfactory to both extremes of the farm-policy debates." Hmm... if the other side is unhappy about something, then there's gotta be some good in it for me. Sadly, a third Des Moines Register article predicts Vilsack Not Likely To Take USDA in Radical Direction.
Then there's John Nichols from The Nation, who calls Vilsack A Cautious Food and Farm Pick. Nichols' article is perhaps the best one I've seen of the entire bunch, explaining how tightly the Ag Secretary's job ties not only to agriculture but to trade, energy, and food issues that touch all of us - even the 98% of Americans who don't farm. Nichols says
The pick that offers the most insight into where Obama will lead the country is his selection the most misunderstood position in the Cabinet: secretary of Agriculture.
He follows that up by saying: "Unfortunately, the answer is not a bold one" and "Obama could have done better, much better." Nichols ends by echoing a hope that I and 60,000+ others share: that Obama will make bolder choices for USDA Under Secretaries. (PLEASE sign the petition that makes this request of the Obama team... the Obama transition team and Obama's top advisers are aware of this petition so your signature does count!)